What Lady Gaga Teaches us about Pain and Gender

Gaga poster art
Art from the film Gaga: Five Foot Two
via Netflix

Lady Gaga’s recent Netflix endeavor Gaga: Five Foot Two brings viewers into her personal world. Unlike most rock star documentaries, however, Gaga’s documentary introduces her fans to the intimate health problems that both she and her deceased aunt have suffered from. Respectively, Lady Gaga has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and her Aunt Joanne, for whom her 2016 album was named, died from complications from the autoimmune disorder lupus.

As Antonio Cuesta-Vargas, et al. explain in their 2013 study, fibromyalgia “is a chronic syndrome characterized by widespread pain experienced for at least 3 months combined with tenderness at palpation of 11 or more of 18 specific tender points.” In Five Foot Two, viewers see Gaga suffering from extreme pain in various scenes. She struggles not only with the episodes of chronic pain, but also with the fact that people are watching her struggle, self-consciously saying things like, “Do I look pathetic?” and “I am so embarrassed.”

Lady Gaga isn’t the first artist to bring these issues into the public eye.

Some have critiqued these scenes, but Five Foot Two offers an interesting entry point to discuss autoimmune and nerve conditions like fibromyalgia and lupus. The documentary asks the viewer to consider how female pain is often perceived or diminished in both the medical field and in the entertainment world.

Cuesta-Vargas, et al. note that women are “10 times more likely to meet the criteria for [fibromyalgia].” In 2013, Allen Frances explored the then-new edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which lists and compiles the new disorders. DSM-5 introduced what Frances termed “a poorly tested diagnosis, somatic symptom disorder, that risks mislabelling many people as mentally ill.”

Frances argued that this new psychological diagnosis was a catch-all with a loose definition, one which he feared would lend itself to easy misdiagnoses or misapplications in the field, without properly searching for an underlying medical disorder. He particularly feared for women, noting that “[m]illions of people could be mislabeled, with the burden falling disproportionately on women, because they are more likely to be casually dismissed as ‘catastrophisers’ when presenting with physical symptoms.”

Of course, Lady Gaga isn’t the first artist to bring these issues into the public eye. In 2015, Selena Gomez was diagnosed with lupus, and has been quite open with her fans in sharing her diagnosis, her physical struggles, and even her recent kidney transplant. This year a celebrated new documentary Unrest follows a Harvard PhD student Jennifer Brea, as she chronicles her debilitating struggle with myalgic encephalomyelitis (or M.E., more commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), a complex disorder often believed to be imagined in the patient’s head. There are shocking moments when Unrest documents multiple people experiencing an M.E. “crash.” Brea’s way of visually sharing the extreme symptoms of the disease is both surprising and captivating.

Through Gaga, Gomez, and Brea’s distinct lenses, viewers can clearly see women suffering from these real conditions which cannot be overlooked. These creative women are going beyond sharing their diagnoses, and instead are more honestly and visibly sharing the pain and suffering that comes alongside them. Perhaps this will help the medical world and fellow citizens at large to be less dismissive of and more inclusive in their search for treatment and cures for these disorders which disproportionately afflict women.


JSTOR Citations

Clinical dimensions of fibromyalgia symptoms and development of a combined index of severity: The CODI index

By: Antonio Cuesta-Vargas, Juan V. Luciano, Maria Teresa Peñarrubia-María, Javier García-Campayo, Rita Fernández-Vergel, Manuel Arroyo-Morales, Antoni Serrano-Blanco and The FibroQoL Study Group

Quality of Life Research, Vol. 22, No. 1 (February, 2013), pp. 153-160

Springer

New disorder risks mislabelling many as mentally ill

By: Allen Frances

BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 346, No. 7900 (23 March 2013), p. 26

BMJ

Ellen C. Caldwell

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and professor. She writes about visual culture, the arts, and popular media for publications including New American Paintings, KCET's Artbound, Riot Material, Desert Jewels, and more. Read more of her writing at eclaire.me.

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